Thursday, March 28, 2013

Returning on a Philosophical Note - A Principled Critique of Libertarianism

Blogging has not happened here for a while, due mostly to a certain seasonal torpor on the part of the bloggers.  But we're back now, and aim to update a bit more regularly.

We return with a critique of libertarianism.  Libertarianism is generally seen as a consistent, principled ideology, and gains respectability with white-collar professional types (and the media that caters to them) because its so supposedly philosophically sound.*  Critiques of libertarianism often take its philosophical soundness for granted or refuse to dispute it, and rely instead on practical arguments about the consequences of libertarian policies for poor people, the environment and the rights of minorities.**

These are good arguments, and I have made them before, but I wanted to critique libertarianism on a more fundamental level and argue that its consistency is not the result of sober thought, but of a glib desire to reduce all politics to a single goal -- maximizing liberty. 

To do this I will not look at the world through a theoretical lens, but looking at the world as it exists.

At the most basic level, governments in this world exist to provide and protect things that people think are good.  This is not what the philosophers will always say -- they may tell some fairy tale about the state of nature, or deduce something from first principles that they have pulled out of thin air, but this is what governments, especially Republican governments, do.  Protection from external enemies, protection from crime, predictable and equitable laws that can allow commerce to flourish, infrastructure -- these are things that we see governments provide, and this is what people look to their government for.

There are many things that are good.  Having enough food to eat is good.  Having a chance at a better life is good.   Being happy is good.  Being safe is good.  I could go on.  And yet other than 'goodness' these things do not have any necessary connection.  Philosophy has often tried to reduce these multiple goods to a single good, like 'maximizing happiness' but the fact is that some good things are not reconcilable, like incommensurate magnitudes; we cannot enjoy the ability to dispose all of our money as we see fit and also have a government that is capable of providing roads, schools, healthcare etc.  There is no magic formula for reconciling these conflicting goods, because any abstraction will deny the goodness of something or fail in some specific instance.  We must learn to live with the multiplicity of desirable goals and balance them as best we can.

Libertarianism is one of many attempts to reduce the multiplicity of public goods to a single, simple formula: people should be as free as possible.  The coercion of laws and taxes is at best a necessary evil.  Government should do as little as possible, and then get out of the way.  The legitimate realm of government is, essentially, to keep people from killing each other and (according to some more moderate souls) to provide infrastructure.

The chief problem with this is that it denies the legitimacy of other good things that government can provide -- healthcare, a chance at a good education, laws that keep our neighbors from poisoning us with pollution.  Liberty, which is one good thing to be desired, is made primary, and all other goods suffer in order to maximize it.  There are many arguments why this should be the case, but it always comes down to the question: which public good is most important?  I reject the question.  There is no single, paramount good, no guiding principle except muddling through and doing the best we can -- which means acknowledging the whole diversity of human need and desire. Liberty is good, but so is safety and opportunity and equality.  As grown ups, we need to find a balance, not insist that one of these trumps all the others.

There are other problems with the libertarian argument as well.  It relies upon specious distinctions --why is the infringement of my liberty by a private individual acceptable, but not acceptable when the government does it?  Why are the injuries done to me by pollution not subject to the same laws as someone punching me in the face?  In many cases it is half-assed, acknowledging a government role in infrastructure but not in education, in defence but not in environmental regulation -- all but the most fanatical ideologues are inconsistent on points like this.

I may expand on these issues in another blog post. But they share a commonality that I cannot pass over in silence -- in both cases, the sophistical distinctions and inconsistencies of organized, ideological libertarianism match the interests of two groups -- the wealthy and the corporations that they control.  This is not lofty philosophy after all.  It's politics.

*The other reason that libertarian ideals get so much credence is because there generally seems to be a libertarian movement in American politics -- some of the issues our nation is poised to make the most progress on - marijuana law reform and gay marriage - have libertarian arguments in their favor, even though few legislators actually endorse a libertarian philosophy.

**This is perhaps debatable within libertarianism, but it's hard to believe in the absolute rights of property owners to serve who they wish to and support anti-discrimination laws, just ask Rand Paul.  It is also impossible to argue that discrimination would just disappear without government intervention unless one is willfully blind to American history.

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